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Did You Hear? Print

Did You Hear?


The power of the mind is something we may not think about very often, but if we consider how little power we have over our minds when we're faced with negative situations, we appreciate just how potent the mind can be. We've all been tormented by jealousy or grief or anger; we've all experienced the way such emotions can carry us away from our reasonable, day-to-day state of mind. From the Buddhist perspective, an appreciation for the mind's tremendous power is a precursor to training the mind to awaken itself.

Three activities that are essential to training our minds-hearing, contemplating, and meditating-are already quite natural to us. You hear shocking news-the new boss at work has fired you. You may have to hear it several times and ask a lot of questions before the news truly sinks in. This is hearing.

Then you think about it. You mull over the news. You may think about how it happened, trace its origins, figure out what went wrong. This is contemplating.


Then, you settle in and find you are completely absorbed in the feelings of shock and anger. You may think about getting revenge. You will doubtless fantasize many different scenarios with tremendous clarity and vivid detail. When we are carried away by strong emotions, the source of our emotional disturbance becomes our reference point. This is meditating. We find ourselves continually returning to a central reference point; we are fully absorbed. We can't escape.

The powers of hearing, contemplating and meditating are built-in, you could say. Our minds have these tendencies naturally, but when we train our minds through shamatha (mindfulness) practice, we can actually strengthen our ability to hear, our ability to contemplate, and our ability to meditate. Those abilities can be cultivated into powers that we can draw upon to free ourselves from the grip of negative emotions.

Let's use shamatha practice as an example of how hearing, contemplating, and meditating strengthen the mind. The overall view of shamatha practice is that we can strengthen our minds through meditation practice. Through regular shamatha, our minds become more resilient and more pliant, so that when we are faced with the negative emotions that used to take over our minds entirely, we are not trapped. When we meditate, we are developing the power to gain some perspective on seemingly overwhelming thoughts.

How, then, is shamatha able to work effectively on our minds? First, we hear the instructions on how to do it. Then we think about those instructions. We contemplate how it feels to place the attention on the breath and to try to keep it there. Then, we actually try it. Contemplation gives way to meditation. We sit on the cushion and use our breath as our reference point. When our mind wanders, we always return to the breath. Most of us need to hear the instructions again and again in order to remember them. And then we should mix the meditation practice with contemplation of our experience.

In this way, our view of shamatha, of training and strengthening our minds, is fully established and can be relied upon again and again. But the whole process began with proper hearing. Without proper hearing, we could well have gotten off on the wrong track and something we were calling shamatha, something we were calling meditation practice, could be taking us in an unhelpful direction. That is why hearing is emphasized first.

What is the proper attitude for hearing dharma teachings? Usually when we are listening to someone, we tend to think, "Oh, okay, I got it." We want to "get it" quickly. We are eager to apply our own viewpoint to it. But before we place our own view on what the Buddha taught, before we apply our new interpretation, first we should try to hear what is being said to us. We could let the dharma sink in and penetrate us. We could get to the point where we can drop our own baggage and listen to what is being said.

When we hear dharma teachings, we don't just listen. We listen and then we hear. Our minds have to be available for this experience. We have to take time and let the levels of subtlety sink in. We listen and remain open to the meaning, so that at some point the meaning strikes us very deeply. When we pay attention, we recognize our meditation experiences from what we've heard. When this happens, the implications for the rest of our lives are very profound. This is the first moment when we can really say that we have heard the dharma. This is a penetrating experience. This is hearing.

Another important point to remember is that hearing does not only mean going to a program at a meditation center and taking notes during the talks. Hearing also refers to study. When we read a teacher's words we are hearing the dharma. It's good to remember to hold our minds open and to pay attention when we read the dharma, the same way we would if we were attending a dharma talk.

When we actually hear the instructions on how to meditate, and when we hear the teachings on what meditation means, then that meaning penetrates us. We understand our experience through contemplating what meditation means to us. With our new-found understanding, we return to the meditation cushion and observe our experience. Eventually, we see the relationship between hearing and studying the dharma teachings and deepening our understanding of them.

Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche is holder of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage established by his father, the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Did You Hear?, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.

Sisters Print



How much, asks Barry Boyce, can a man know about being a woman?

Late one night, I found myself at the tail end of a party engaged in a deep discussion about womanhood. This discussion had gone on so long that everyone had left, except for one other guest, who had fallen asleep in a chair. At about 3:30 a.m. my interlocutor-host dropped the bomb: "How can you say anything at all about women? You don't know about us, because you're not one of us." That's what you call a conversation stopper.

Though I regarded her assertion as an overstatement, it definitely made me think. How much can a man know about being a woman? Some vague residue from past lives or transgender dreams might provide a hint, but these hardly qualify as the day-to-day knowledge that comes from having different equipment and hormones, not to mention being treated differently and paid less. Cross-dressing could provide another glimpse, but the few times I've put on a dress qualify more as vaudeville than anthropological research.

We are told that each of us has a masculine and feminine "side." This sidewise understanding has so entered the vernacular that a character on a cop show can say, "I don't have a feminine side. Where my feminine side would be, there's just another masculine side."

Where is this side and what's it made of? We seem to associate certain gestures, expressions, intonations and ways of carrying ourselves with masculinity or femininity, but step too far into this and you're in a snake pit. Consider the swirl of connotations around the word "effeminate," which presumably could simply refer to demonstrating those attributes of the feminine side (again the side thing) of our nature but which sadly carries a derisive tone-as evidenced by my dictionary's second definition: "characterized by weakness or excessive refinement."

Yikes! I don't know what it's like to be a woman, that's been amply established, but I have just a tinge of an inkling that this definition would anger me, because it angers me a bit as it is (or is that my feminine side talking?).

All of this would be nothing more than parlor talk for late night parties, except I am the father of two daughters and thus stand as an authority figure in relation to two women in the making. If I'm always saying, "That's your mother's department," I'll very quickly become superfluous, which the strong theory of woman-raising would already hold that I am, or at any rate should be.

In the area of daughter-father relationships, the only models are wooden TV dad stereotypes. When the models are found wanting, one must turn to empirical knowledge, the kind gained from observation alone. And in this department, I've been well endowed. I can't know what it's like to be a woman, or even how exactly to be a dad to girls, but I know something of sisters, and even perhaps of sisterhood, if I may be so bold. I grew up with them, and in part I was raised by them, and now I am raising a pair of my own.

My sisters Mary Jane and Margaret Anne, MJ and Mog, were born after four brothers back in the days when families could be like small neighborhoods. The break in the torrent of testosterone was wildly celebrated by all, according to family lore. These girls, a year apart in age, would become my big sisters, separating me over a span of nine years from my brothers, who loomed like the giants Fasolt and Fafner in Wagner's Ring.

I'm told that some sisters have distant or tempestuous relationships, but in my case I've observed a closeness such as I have rarely observed in two human beings. Perhaps hovered over by so many men, they forged a bond out of that indefinable thing they shared. Being young and dotable on, I could hang out with them and observe their ways. I watched as they gained stature and I watched as they were beaten about by the crises of teenage-hood, that roller coaster of ecstasy and abandonment. I watched as they left home, armed with a certain confidence in who they were, only to see that confidence sorely tested by what the world expected of women, or worse, what the world would not allow women to be. Whatever they thought might have been possible was often met with floodwaters of resistance. They responded damn well.

Through all of these trials of modern womanhood, I have watched, now from a distance, the steel rope of their relationship created so long ago only strengthen. It seems in the most difficult times it has been that simple, non-material, ineffable thing-sisterhood-that has provided them the most reliable source of sustaining power.

Now, from a different perspective, I have observed that same kind of bond developing in my own daughters. At times I have seen them able to extend it to others. As I watch them move closer to the day when they too will leave me to have their mettle tested by the world, I take some solace in the ever-expanding simplicity of their friendship. Indeed, I suppose I have no idea what it means to be a girl or a woman, but I know what's possible between sisters, and it's a beautiful thing to behold.

Barry Campbell Boyce is a writer and teacher of writing. He is president of Victory Communication.

Sisters, Barry Boyce, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.

Choosing to be Healthy Print
Shambhala Sun | July 2001

Choosing to be Healthy


As a practicing physician I deal on a daily basis with the issue of to how change health behaviors. The people I've seen who successfully alter their health habits for the better have usually done so because they have come to realize there is a discrepancy between how they currently behave and what they hope to achieve in their lives. Often the heightening of this inner tension through crisis or introspection contributes to their decision to change.

For example, my wife's friend Laurie used to be a total party girl. A gradual spiritual awakening eventually led Laurie to examine her life's direction, and she decided that her days of smoking, drinking and eating junk food were over. These habits, she realized, interfered with her ability to be of service to other people in her newly discovered calling in the healing arts. Laurie talks now about how light and clear-minded she feels, and how that profoundly affects her ability to be compassionate and pursue her spiritual development.

The lifestyle changes Laurie made may not be for everyone, but the idea that poor health will affect your level of energy and ability to function merits attention. Your state of well being, or lack of it, can affect the things you value most in life, such as relationships with family and friends, work, social service and spiritual practice.

It's worth considering the impact your day-to-day habits may have on your quality of life. Current statistics indicate that about two out of five of us will suffer from heart disease or stroke, one in four will get cancer, and one in four women will develop osteoporosis. Often these common medical conditions result from poor lifestyle habits.

Maintaining good health, however, is not just about avoiding strokes and cancer in the far-off retirement years. The World Health Organization tells us that "health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

For example, fatigue is a common reason for people to seek medical attention. Fatigue in an otherwise well person is usually caused by lifestyle factors and only occasionally by undiagnosed medical conditions. Reasons for fatigue can include lack of exercise, poor quality sleep, prolonged stress and inadequate nutrition.

Given the prevalence of lifestyle-based symptoms and disease, the statistics on health habits seem absurdly lame: most people say that their health is very important to them, yet only one-third are physically active enough to reap health benefits and four out of five don't eat the recommended daily minimum of five servings of fruit and vegetables. Half of people say that they are stressed out.

The fact is that simple lifestyle changes can substantially improve your health. Increasing physical activity moderately, eating a few more fruits and vegetables every day, and decreasing stress can have powerful health effects, including improved stamina, mood and quality of sleep. Good health habits also mean a lower chance of heart attack, stroke and cancer in the long run. People with healthy habits generally live six to ten years longer and have less sickness and disability.

Appreciating the ways in which healthier living can facilitate the achievement of our life goals may assist us in changing our lifestyle. Generally, I try to relate health to what is really important in a patient's life. For many spiritually oriented folks, this can include providing compassionate service or maintaining spiritual disciplines such as meditation.

My experience is that many people often haven't made the connection between their health habits and the impact of these habits on spiritual practices. The role of wellness is commonly under-examined in North American spirituality. Wellness is only occasionally mentioned in classical or contemporary works of spiritual guidance as a foundation for meditation or a contributor to religious practice.

Realistically, most of us are probably more effective at being compassionate and performing physical or mental tasks when we are feeling well. While some individuals may be able to generate compassion or stick to their practices despite their suffering, many of us will have a harder time being generous and energetic if we feel sick. It's hard to get on with what's important to us if we are bedridden, tired or uncomfortable, because more energy is directed toward dealing with the infirmity rather than toward cultivating our compassion or generosity.

Improved lifestyle choices, then, can be seen as directly contributing to our capacity to engage in spiritual practice and social service. This reframing can be a powerful motivator in changing how we look after ourselves. Lifestyle changes need not be complicated or demanding. Increasing your walking by 30 minutes a day, eating as little as two or more extra fruits and vegetables a day, or scheduling more sleep time can positively affect your well-being in both the short and long terms.

Having said all this, there is no denying that experiencing illness is still "grist for the mill," and being obsessed with maintaining perfect health is pointless because it will never happen. When we do get sick, as we inevitably will, we can try to enhance our compassion for others who are ill, and work on our aversion to suffering or our attachment to health. People can make marvelous progress when faced with this challenge. We have all heard of courageous and inspiring individuals who directly attribute their spiritual growth to their illness, injury or impending death.

We live in a time and place that offers great potential for well being if we make wise choices. Advances in public health, medicine and our understanding of disease prevention mean we can live long and well. Most of the major chronic diseases of modern living, such as strokes, heart attacks and many cancers, are often products of poor health habits. In our craving we eat too much, spend too much, and generally overindulge. Ignorance of basic health measures results in so much unnecessary disease and suffering.

Lifestyle habits can hopefully be viewed in a more positive context than the nagging "shoulds" that we wrestle with daily. Good habits can provide us with more passion, energy and perseverance, both now and in the long term. The best reason to strive to protect our health and prolong life I can think of is that human birth is so precious. Life here on earth has just the right titration of joy and suffering to provide optimal opportunity for enlightenment. The longer we are around, the farther we may walk on our spiritual path.

Chris Stewart-Patterson, M.D. is assistant professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and works as an emergency department physician at an inner city hospital in Vancouver.

    Choosing to be Healthy, Chris Stewart-Patterson, M.D., Shambhala Sun, July 2001.

Religion Without God Print
Shambhala Sun | July 2001

Religion Without God


What does it mean to be a religion without a God? More broadly, what does it mean to live without an exterior savior of any kind?

In the 1930's, the scholar Helmuth von Glassenapp published a book entitled Buddhism: A Non-theistic Religion. In this title the author was making the point that unlike most of the other world religions, Buddhism denies the ultimate existence of any "God" or deity. As von Glassenapp indicates, non-theism is fundamental to Buddhism and stands right at the heart of its spirituality.

Unfortunately, people in the West have sometimes jumped to the conclusion that Buddhists do not believe in the existence of gods or other unseen beings at all. Wishing Buddhism to be true to modern scientific materialism and philosophical rationalism, they believe that Buddhism is eminently "empirical" and denies the existence of anything that cannot be seen with the senses or proved in some kind of objectively verifiable manner.

But this is not the sense in which Buddhists are non-theistic. Buddhists everywhere believe in an "unseen world" inhabited by a full range of gods, demi-gods, spirits, ghosts and demons. In addition, all Buddhists-except, perhaps, modern Western ones-pray continually to buddhas, bodhisattvas and great teachers not only for inspiration, but for practical guidance and help.

In these various ways, Buddhists certainly seem to be behaving like worshippers in the world's theistic religions. This raises the question: what exactly is Buddhist non-theism?

Briefly put, non-theism in Buddhism means that what is ultimately true and real cannot be found in any external god or being. Any such being has location, qualities and some kind of existence, and is therefore subject to causes and conditions. There is, according to Buddhism, something far more fundamental than this.

Theism implies an inherent limitation to human nature. It declares that to attain the ultimate, we must look outside of ourselves and our immediate experience. It establishes a reference point for reality that resides somewhere else and directs us to seek confirmation of the self in relation to that.

The doctrines of original sin or inherent human depravity would be examples of theism in its more extreme forms. They are typical in asserting that we can connect ourselves to the ultimate only by making a relation with that which is exterior to us, and that we can do so only through the agency of a savior, a holy book, a religious institution, and so on.

In Buddhism, the meaning of theism is best understood when set in a wider context. In a larger sense, theism refers to anything outside of us that purports to solve the human predicament. It may be spiritual; it may be secular. Some people seek salvation in an external deity. But others seek it in a philosophical viewpoint or political movement, in a relationship, in social status, or in material acquisition.

In each case, the individual seeks ultimate confirmation and fulfillment by looking outside. What is already present within his or her experience, what arises throughout the course of a day or a life, is discounted as being without ultimate value. In a sense, whether the external "answer" is materialistic, psychological or religious does not really matter.

The Buddhist approach states that what is ultimately required for human fulfillment is a perfection of being that is found in who we already are. This is the meaning of the Buddha's advice given shortly before his death and recounted in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, in which he councils his followers to be lights unto themselves, to seek refuge in themselves, and to seek no other refuge, using the dharma as a means to that end.

Here the Buddha directs us to rely only on ourselves, using various methods to explore our own human nature as it exists right now. This exploration is not a one-sided introversion. Rather, it is looking at our present experiences of both the "internal" and "external" worlds to see what lies at their base, beneath the constant chatter of discursive thinking. Then from within our own experience is gradually uncovered what is ultimately real. This is our buddhanature-that which is open, clear, all-wise and limitlessly compassionate.

In fact, it is this very nature that is habitually projected onto "supernatural beings." It is in this sense that the Buddha, the prototype of the enlightened person, is called the devatideva in the early texts-the god above gods. The Buddha fully understands the deities-that while they may appear to exist on a relative level, they have no final reality. Instead, they are projections of the deepest qualities of our own human nature. This understanding is attained through the practice of meditation, in which the temporary defilements that obscure the buddhanature are gradually stripped away.

It is true not all Buddhists are non-theistic in this sense. One may be a Buddhist but also a theist, if one believes that enlightenment is something external and looks to texts, human teachers or institutions to provide the final answers.

Nor are all Jews, Christians, Muslims and Hindus theistic. One can be a good Christian, for example, and be non-theistic in the Buddhist understanding, if one admits the presence of a "Christ within," as the Hesychasts do, and takes St. Paul's perspective that when one does good, "It is not I, but Christ within me." In similar fashion, Hindu advaita Vedanta, certain strands of Kabbala, and aspects of Sufism conform to the definition of non-theism.

Finally, it is interesting to note that theism is not universally condemned in Buddhism. In fact, it is said to be a necessary component of the path, not only at the beginning but right up until enlightenment itself. Perhaps in order to enter the path at all, one must believe that there is a tradition of teachers, texts and practice "out there" that will provide some answers to one's basic life questions. It is only through locating the ultimate outside of oneself in the form of projections that one can rouse the motivation to traverse the path. Even for the bodhisattvas of the high levels (bhumis), there is some sense, however subtle, of a final enlightenment to be attained.

There is no need to worry, then, that the dharma is necessarily being perverted when one finds Buddhists acting like spiritual practitioners in "theistic" religions. Of concern, rather, are those modern Buddhists who utterly abjure theism even in its relative and pragmatic senses. In turning away from devotion, veneration and supplication of the enlightened ones, they are rejecting the most powerful methodology that Buddhism possesses.

Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., is Professor of Buddhist Studies at Naropa University and teacher in residence at Rocky Mountain Shambhala Center. His new book is Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.

    Religion Without God, Reginald A. Ray, Ph.D., Shambhala Sun, July 2001.

Working with Human Goodness Print

Working with Human Goodness


What becomes available to us when we greet one another as fully human? This, says Margaret Wheatley, is an important question as we struggle through this dark time.

We need to remember the fact of human goodness.

Of course, human goodness seems like an outrageous "fact," since every day we are confronted by evidence of the great harm we so easily do to one another. We are numbed by the genocide, ethnic hatred and individual violence committed daily in the world. Of the 240 or so nations in the world, nearly a quarter are currently at war.

In our daily life, we encounter people who are angry and deceitful, intent only on satisfying their own needs. There is so much anger, distrust, greed and pettiness that we are losing our capacity to work well together, and many of us are more withdrawn and distrustful than ever. Yet this incessant display of what is worst in us makes it essential that we believe in human goodness. Without that belief, there really is no hope.

There is nothing equal to human creativity, caring and will. We can be incredibly generous, imaginative and open-hearted. We can do the impossible, learn and change quickly, and extend instant compassion to those in distress. And these are not behaviors we keep hidden. We exhibit them daily.

How often during a day do you figure out an answer to a problem, invent a slightly better way of doing something, or extend yourself to someone in need? Then look around at your colleagues and neighbors, and you'll see others acting just like you—people trying to make a contribution and help others.

In these times of turmoil, we have forgotten who we can be and we have let our worst natures prevail. Some of these bad behaviors we create because we treat people in non-human ways. We've organized work around destructive motivations-greed, self-interest and competition-and taken the very things that make us human—our emotions, imagination and need for meaning-and dismissed them as unimportant. We've found it more convenient to treat humans as replaceable parts in the machinery of production.

After years of being bossed around, of being told they're inferior, of power plays that destroy lives, most people are cynical and focused only on self-protection. Who wouldn't be? This negativity and demoralizatoin is created by the organizing and governance methods in use. People cannot be discounted or used only for someone else's benefit. If obedience and compliance are the primary values, these destroy creativity, commitment and generosity. Whole cultures and generations have been deadened by such coercion.

But people's reaction to coercion tells us a great deal about the goodness of the human spirit. The horrors of the twentieth century show us the worst of human nature and the very best. How do you feel when you hear stories of those who wouldn't give in, who remained generous and offered compassion to others in the midst of personal horror? The human spirit is nearly impossible to extinguish. Few of us can listen to these stories and remain cynical. We are hungry for these tales-they remind us of what it means to be fully human. We always want to hear more.

To examine our beliefs about human goodness is not merely a philosophical inquiry. These beliefs are critical to what we do in the world; they lead us either to action or retreat. Courageous acts aren't done by people who believe in human badness. Why risk anything if we don't believe in each other? Why stand up for anyone if we don't believe they're worth saving? Who you think I am will determine what you are willing to do on my behalf. You won't even notice me if you believe that I am less than you are.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught about the relationship between our beliefs about each other and our willingness to act courageously. He defined our present historic time as a dark age, because we are poisoned by self-doubt and thus have become cowards. In his teachings and work, as Pema Chödrön describes them, he aspired to bring about an era of courage in which people could experience their goodness and extend themselves to others.

Oppression never occurs between equals. Tyranny always arises from the belief that some people are more human than others. There is no other way to justify inhumane treatment, except to assume that the pain experienced by the oppressed is not the same as ours.

I saw this clearly in post-apartheid South Africa. In hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, white South Africans listened to black mothers grieving over the loss of their children to violence, to wives weeping for their tortured husbands, to black maids crying for the children they left behind when they went to work for white families. As the grief of these women and men became public, many white South Africans for the first time saw black South Africans as equally human. In the years of apartheid, they had justified their mistreatment of blacks by assuming that the suffering of blacks was not equal to theirs; they had assumed that blacks were not fully human.

What becomes available to us when we greet one another as fully human? This is an important question as we struggle through this dark time.

In my own organization, we've been experimenting with two values that keep us focused on what is best about us humans. The first value is, "We rely on human goodness." In conversations, even with strangers, we assume that they want from their life what we want from ours: a chance to help others, to learn, to be recognized, to find meaning. We have not been disappointed.

Our second value is, "We assume good intent." We try to stop from developing any storyline about another's motivation. We assume there must be a good reason why they did something that may be hurtful or foolish. It takes mindfulness to stop the stream of judgments that pour from our lips, but when we can stop them, we have been well rewarded. People's motives usually are good, even when they look hurtful or stupid. And if we pause long enough to ask them what they intended, there is another benefit-we develop a better relationship with them. Working together becomes easier.

I encourage you to try simple practices like these. For the dark times to end, we need to rely as never before on our fundamental and precious human goodness.

Margaret Wheatley, Ed.D., writes, teaches and speaks about radically new practices and ideas for organizing in chaotic times. She is president of The Berkana Institute and author of Leadership and the New Science, and A Simpler Way, co-authored with Myron Kellner-Rogers.

Working with Human Goodness, Margaret Wheatley, Shambhala Sun, July 2001.

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